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Barre City Looks to the River

The "Youth Triumphant" statue in Barre, Vermont by C. Paul Jennewein represents the youth who fought in World War I. Photo by Carla Occaso.
If you want to picnic near the Stevens Branch in Barre City — or go fishing — how do you get to it through traffic and parking lots? The Barre City River Access Task Force is working with the community on those questions and more to find out how residents can access the river that runs through the city. As part of that, they are planning a river walk and a river cleanup later this month.

The group formed, said task force chair Danielle Owczarski, following a series of 2021 meetings between community members and the Vermont Council on Rural Development through its All In For Barre project, which produced a report and action plan last December. Three community priorities arose during these meetings, Owczarski said, “and river access was one of those top priorities.” (The other two, according to the program website, included initiating a housing task force and developing a community center).

Providing river access could provide needed relief from climate change, Owczarski said. “One of the things that was really important to me was, with the weather getting hotter … that it’s really important for everybody to be able to have access to water that they can cool down in.” 

The task force has held outreach events, including at this summer’s Barre Heritage Festival, to speak with neighbors and find out what the community wants regarding the Stevens Branch. 

“Right now, really, what we’ve come to understand is that a lot of people just kind of want to know about the river,” Owczarski said. She noted that people have asked, “‘where is the river in Barre City? How can we access that? Is it safe to swim? Can we boat? Can we fish?’”

And the questions went beyond these basic inquiries into logistics.

“I think some people really were interested in having a fishing access,” Ow-czarski said. “… some people just kind of want to know where they can access the river… if they wanted to put in a boat, where could they put in a boat? They want to know about the water quality. They want to know, is the water safe?”

The task force worked with a team of volunteers this summer to collect water samples from sites along Stevens Branch and Gunner Brook, both of which empty into the Winooski, in partnership with Friends of the Winooski River. Owczarski said the analysis included chloride, reflecting the presence of road salt runoff that could affect aquatic ecosystems; nitrogen, which is normally low and can reflect a nutrient discharge if levels are high; and phosphorus, which is well-known for contributing to algae blooms in Lake Champlain, into which the Winooski flows. Funding for supplies and analysis came from the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation La Rosa Partnership Program, Owczarski said, and a report is forthcoming. 

Upcoming plans include a River Walk at Rotary Park on Sept. 11 at 10 a.m., where attendees can learn about the plants and animals of the river and its surroundings. And a river cleanup will take place on Sept. 24, with volunteers meeting at Barre City’s City Hall Park at 9 a.m., Owzarski said.

A river access may go in at the Vermont Granite Museum, where, said Executive Director Scott McLaughlin, plans are underway to improve an existing path with gravel to make it accessible, and adding 12 interpretive signs about the site’s cultural heritage and natural history, McLaughlin said. The museum’s property stretches over 11 acres and includes five “micro-ecozones,” including an open field, a riparian (waterfront) zone, a cedar forest, and a white pine nursery. Grants from the Vermont Humanities Council and the Vermont Community Foundation help pay for the project, McLaughlin noted. The path will join a sculpture park scheduled to open next spring, he added.

Screened by trees and plants by U.S. Route 302 on one side, and the beltline on the other, the riverside location is “ … surrounded by cars,” said McLaughlin, “but once you get closer to the river all you hear is the movement of the water, so it makes a nice area.” 

There are not many such areas available in this part of Barre. 

“There’s no park space that you can explore in North Barre at this end of town,” McLaughlin said, noting that while a couple of access sites exist, the improved path at the museum will provide better accessibility to a natural area in this section of the city. 

“And it’s filled with birds back there,” he said, noting that a doe comes by in the spring to leave her fawn by the path to rest while she goes about her business. Woodchucks and squirrels also inhabit the property, and four years ago, a moose made its way almost to the museum’s door before deciding to make its way back into the woods.